Are Pentecostals Fundamentalists? Part Two

Are Pentecostals Fundamentalists? Part Two July 12, 2022

Are Pentecostals Fundamentalists? Part Two

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If you have not read Part One of this blog series, go back and read that before reading this one. Otherwise you will be confused. I even suggest that you go back further and read my recent blog post about the meaning of “fundamentalism.”

One friend has commented that the American Pentecostalism of today is not at all the same as that in which we grew up in the mid-20th century or before. That’s true—at least in terms of the surface appearances of many Pentecostal churches. Most do not use that term (viz., “Pentecostal). Especially in cities many, perhaps most, Pentecostal churches have adopted different styles of worship and even daily life. Many Pentecostals today drink beer and wine, attend movies, even allow their sons and daughters to attend school dances. All of those things were anathema among Pentecostals of the mid-20th century and before.

But what I am talking about, when I talk or write about fundamentalism and Pentecostalism, is not those surface matters of lifestyle but matters of theology, of doctrine, Bible teaching, etc. And also how both groups relate to outsiders—other Christians and the secular world of culture.

A major change of the “outer things” took place among both American fundamentalists and American Pentecostals during the 1980s and continues to this day. It is a process of change. Only a few “hard core” fundamentalists and Pentecostals stick to the old ways of strict, legalistic lifestyle. Both groups by-and-large merged into American culture to an extent that would have been anathema to them in the mid-20th century and before.

Having settled that, let me go back to the issue at hand which is whether Pentecostals “then” and “now” are fundamentalists. Everything depends, of course, on what “fundamentalism” means and I have talked about that here very much. It is an essentially contested concept. I gave one informal kind of litmus test and that was that true fundamentalists, whatever their lifestyle, tend (!) to believe that everything their church teaches and that they believe, doctrinally, theologically, is essential to authentic Christian faith such that those who disagree are spiritually seriously defective at best and probably should be excluded from Christian fellowship.

Of course, that is true in many religions, among the most conservative of the conservatives in those religions, but here I am talking about American Christianity and especially Protestants and even especially evangelical Protestants. Or at least “orthodox Protestants” who accept the principles of sola scriptura, sola Christi, sola fides. Fundamentalists have long been the most conservative of the conservatives, rigid in terms of holding firmly to traditions of belief and unwilling to bend to consider the possibility that what they have always believed might be wrong.

Several doctrinal issues come two mind here. The vast majority of American Protestant fundamentalists (and remember I am talking here about doctrine and theology) still insist that the Bible be interpreted “as literally as possible.” And they still insist that the Bible is the “inerrant word of God” often attributing that inerrancy to a particular translation, but also often treating a particular interpretation as infallible. To be clear, if someone among fundamentalists says that it’s possible that the book of Jonah is a parable and not history, that person will probably be shunned, disallowed from teaching or preaching and possibly excommunicated.

Also, true American fundamentalism still, to this day, in 2022, tends to hold firmly to so-called “young earth creationism” and belief in the “rapture.” (However, there are Reformed fundamentalists who do not believe in the rapture or a literal millennial reign of Christ on earth before the end of this world and the emergence of the new heaven and new earth.)

So, fundamentalism is a certain way of handling doctrines that tends to empty the “opinion” category and move everything believed into the “dogma” (essentials) category although there are degrees of this. Some fundamentalists will allow that some of what they believe is denominational doctrine and not a test of Christian fellowship. In other words, some will have Christian fellowship with Christians who baptize differently or who have a different form of church polity, etc.

I will now bring up two relatively recent case studies. Putting aside entirely Rob Bell’s later spiritual journey, when his book “Love Wins” was about to be published, fundamentalists jumped on it very harshly because they thought the book and its author was playing with fire—namely, universalism. To the best of my knowledge, and I wrote about that controversy here, they did not back down when the book was published and it became clear that it was promoting a view of hell very much the same as C. S. Lewis’s. Nowhere in the book did Bell advocate or promote universal salvation. Yet, one (IMHO) fundamentalist Calvinist leader tweeted “Farewell, Rob Bell.” Meaning, “farewell from Christian fellowship with me and mine.” At least that seems to be what was meant and that is how it was widely interpreted. I don’t know what else it could have meant.

Second, evangelical Anglican N. T. Wright has come under very harsh criticism from fundamentalist evangelicals for daring to interpret the doctrine of justification differently.

And I have to go back a bit further to a controversy that broke out and lasted quite a while within the Evangelical Free Church of America about the resurrection of Jesus. A New Testament scholar at that denomination’s seminary taught that Jesus’s resurrection was bodily but not physical. Another professor, one of his colleagues, charged him with heresy. Ultimately, the New Testament scholar was exonerated, but the controversy was damaging to his reputation among many of the most conservative of the conservatives with it he EVFree denomination and beyond.

Let me be clear. True fundamentalism is not about a style of worship or even about a particular kind of appearance. Fundamentalists have LONG been among the “best” at being contemporary in worship and have LONG changed the appearances—of dress and hair and church buildings, etc. Most people tend to look at the surface of things when interpreting and categorizing them in their minds. I look below the surface of appearances to what is really going on in the minds of the leaders of churches, colleges, denominations, seminaries, etc. And I see that many, many who call themselves “evangelical” are still stuck in fundamentalism.

Are American Pentecostals fundamentalists? Where they? Are they now?

It has become very difficult to generalize about “American Pentecostals.” Few use that label; most never did. Or at least they preferred and still prefer other labels. In my youth it was “full gospel.” I don’t know what it is today. Today, largely, Christians eschew labels which makes things very difficult. What things? Knowing who and what a church or denomination is!

But this I know from personal experience and from digging deep into churches’ and denomination’s web sites. Many, many very “contemporary” (outward appearance, style of worship, etc.) churches are fundamentalist in the sense that leaders in the church (elders, teachers, deacons, pastors, etc.) MUST adhere to every “jot and tittle” of a particular theology and interpretation of the Bible. Or if you question any of the denomination’s resolutions, you cannot serve in any teaching or leadership position within the church.

Now, back to Pentecostalism. We (1950s and before and afterwards) stood out as different from most fundamentalists because we allowed women to preach and even plant churches and pastor them. I’m out saying every Pentecostal denomination did, but most white Pentecostal denominations did. And that is still the case—at least “on paper.” Most American fundamentalists then and still today eschew women preachers, pastors, evangelists, etc. They (women) can speak in certain contexts, especially to women, but they cannot preach or teach men.

So, the answer is “yes, in some ways,” and “no, not in other ways.” But, still, and I know this from knowing many, many Pentecostals, it is still dangerous for a Pentecostal teacher as in a college or seminary to step outside the closed system of doctrine or even hint at that. A case in point is an Asian Assembly of God theologian who struggled to stay within the Assemblies of God but ended up having to teach in non-AG institutions because he dared to think outside the box, so to speak. And this has been the case all along among American Pentecostals. But, unlike other fundamentalists, most American Pentecostals permit women to teach and even preach. That, among other things, sets them apart from the fundamentalist tradition. By-and-large, with some exceptions, American Pentecostals still, to this day, are highly suspicious of anyone who earns a degree from a non-Pentecostal institution of higher education. To me, that is a sign of fundamentalism.

Does it come down to what a Supreme Court judge said about pornography? Is it the case that we can’t define fundamentalism but know it when we “see” it? Perhaps. But I think there are some probable signals of fundamentalism. But it is always best to look deeper than the surface to decide whether a church or denomination or institution or whatever is “really fundamentalist” in spite of outward appearances such as style of worship.


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